Sociology PhD Student Laura Upenieks honoured as a U of T Athlete of the Year

Congratulations to Sociology PhD student Laura Upenieks who recently received the Frank Pindar Female Athlete of the Year Award from the University of Toronto Varsity Blues. While we in the Sociology department know Laura for her stellar scholarship, the U of T Varsity Blues know her for her skills on the golf course.

During her nine years at the University of Toronto, Laura has been a member and captain of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues Women’s Golf Team. Throughout her varsity career, she has won 15 collegiate events individually (including 3 NCAA events in the United States), and is a two-time OUA individual champion and 7-time OUA team champion. This past summer, Laura represented Team Canada at the 2017 Summer Universiade in Taipei. Laura was also named U of T’s top scholar athlete in 2016, awarded annually to the male and female student who has excelled both academically and athletically during the previous academic year. In 2017, Laura also received a double diamond pin. This award recognizes student-athletes who, while competing on a Varsity team, earned an 80% average or higher in all courses they were enrolled in during the previous academic year 6 or more times during their varsity career. Laura has also been named U of T’s Athlete of the Week on numerous occasions and in October 2017 was the OUA Peak Performer of the Week.

Laura sees her identity as an athlete and as sociologist as intertwined. She states that her experiences in sport shape the qualities that she tries to incorporate in her studies. These include perseverance and resilience, especially when challenges arise, a strong work ethic, and a commitment to getting better with each practice and competitive event. Laura says that she tries to incorporate these qualities into her doctoral studies. “Research is a long process, often with setbacks and challenges that require an unrelenting commitment to the end goal and the ability to persist in the face of obstacles. Both sport and research endeavours also require a supportive community, which I’m fortunate to have.”

Laura also points to the balance that being involved in sport and academic pursuits simultaneously provides, which she thinks end up being beneficial in both domains. Sport, she says, often gives her a much-needed reprieve from the rigours of research, but she will often turn to her research during off-time at sporting competitions to provide perspective and get her mind off the pressures of competition. In addition, she finds that many research ideas come to her during moments of athletic training and competition. Finally, Laura finds that athletic training also forces her to keep active and adhere to a regular workout schedule, which helps her keep sharp, focused, and energized academically.

Laura’s academic record bears witness to the success of her strategy. She is currently in her 4th year of PhD studies with research interests in health inequalities over the life course, aging and health, the sociology of religion and morality, and the sociology of sport.  She has financial support from SSHRC in the form of a Joseph-Armand Bombardier doctoral fellowship and already has fourteen peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters in print.  Her recent research is published in Social Science Research, The Gerontologist, Social Psychology Quarterly, and Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and by Oxford University Press.

Laura is grateful for the support she has received from her supervisor, Professor Markus Schafer, and all the faculty and graduate students she has worked with at the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto, and the support from those involved in the U of T Varsity Blues Golf Program. There, she is grateful in particular to all her teammates throughout the years, and coaches Chris Tortorice, Dave Woods, and Pat Reilly who, according to Laura, challenged her to continue improving as an athlete while also being supportive and understanding of her academic time commitments.